Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This term's coursework has come together in disturbing and wonderful ways; I have spiritual and mental indigestion as a result.

The centerpiece for the term has been a course on Jewish views of Pain and Suffering with Dr. Rachel Adler. We've read widely in there, from the phenomenology of pain to the problem of theodicy, from very traditional views such as yissurim shel ahavah, "sufferings of love," which attributes the suffering of the righteous to the love of God, to the postmodern thinking of philosopher and Talmudist Emanuel Levinas, whose experiences in Europe during World War II led him to insights about good and evil too complex to attempt here. (Check on the link if you are interested. Levinas is amazing.) I'm in the midst of thinking through (again!) my own ideas on the subject. Human evil I can attribute to free will, but the agony of individual suffering is harder to fathom if I insist on a God of goodness and truth?

In Midrash with Dr. Barth, we looked at a homeletical midrash from the Pesikta de Rab Kahana, a collection of sermons from the fifth century and earlier. The specific sermon was composed for Shabbat Nachamu (Sabbath of Comfort) that comes after Tisha B'Av, on the text from Isaiah 40, "Comfort, comfort My people." The sermon looked at the verb "comfort", which can mean to give solace, or to strengthen. What is comfort? What comforts? What is NOT helpful as comfort?

In Recovering the Machzor, (a study of the prayer books for the High Holy Days) with Rabbi Richard Levy, we've been reading texts that deal with these issues, too. Some of them have gotten under my skin so deeply that writing about them has been almost a necessity.

In the process of all these classes, I found myself returning again and again to a folder of exegesis of the Book of Job that I've been keeping ever since I attended a program on Job at the Shalom Hartman Institute my year in Jerusalem. There are a LOT of ways to read that book.

The world around me seems like a sea of pain and suffering, sometimes, between the small and large horrors on the news, and the homeless and sick people I see on the street.

In the meantime, I feel like I've had my own little (very little) tutorials in tsuris [Yiddish for "trouble"]. The burglary reeked of "why me?" especially when the burgles found nothing much to steal and decided instead to vandalize my belongings. I know, free will and all that, but my involuntary reaction to it (sleeplessness, fright, depression) seemed downright unfair. Then after my move to a more secure apartment, I had a more serious tutorial in tsuris -- the temporary blindness and severe pain from a freak eye problem.

One thing I am sure about: I agree with Rabbi Yochanan in Berachot 5a-b (in the Talmud) that I do not love suffering, and I do not love its alleged rewards! I agree with Emanuel Levinas that to talk about the sufferings of others as "instructive" is atrocious. My own experiences with suffering may serve to make me more compassionate, I think, if I choose to use them in that way.

So yeah, it's been a busy term so far.

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